- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2000

Pro-trade Republicans and Democrats, unlike previous years, have buried the hatchet in the current China debate before Congress.

Veterans of congressional trade battles say both Republican and Democratic supporters of permanent normal trade relations (NTR) for China so far are resisting the temptation to score election-year political points at the expense of the legislation.

Bill Archer, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, yesterday called on President Clinton to address the nation from the Oval Office about the need for Congress to approve NTR, and lay the political groundwork for Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization.

But the Texas Republican made the demand in unusually complimentary terms.

"I believe [Mr. Clinton] understands that sometimes the president must go against the polls and make decisions that are in the best interests of the United States and the global community," Mr. Archer said in a speech to the Emergency Committee on American Trade.

A White House official stressed that Mr. Clinton will be "very involved" in fighting for permanent NTR for China, but downplayed the possibility of a speech.

Rep. Cal Dooley, California Democrat, struck a note similar to Mr. Archer's. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, knows "that this issue is much too important to play politics with," Mr. Dooley said.

Though the Senate looks like a sure bet to sign off on permanent NTR for China, NTR supporters still are scrambling in the House, where supporters need up to 30 more Democrats to win passage. The White House has asked for a vote by Memorial Day.

During the last major trade battle in Congress, the ultimately unsuccessful effort in 1997 to pass "fast-track" negotiating authority, there were plenty of partisan pot shots.

But, surprisingly in an election year, the politics of the China issue have encouraged cooperation. Because trade has relied on bipartisan cooperation since World War II, the partisan peace is a shot in the arm for the pro-NTR forces, whose lobbying campaign is firing on all cylinders.

For starters, presidential politics have not derailed the legislation.

Vice President Al Gore caused a brief stir when published reports suggested he would change the China trade deal if elected president. But Mr. Gore subsequently reiterated his backing for NTR, and is lobbying undecided House Democrats now that he has locked up his party's nomination for president.

The fact that Mr. Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, also a free-trade supporter, both have a shot at the White House also calms the partisan atmosphere, because it reduces the temptation for either party to drop this hot potato into the lap of the next president, say NTR supporters.

"As long as control of the White House is in doubt, both parties will want to get this done this year," said one business lobbyist.

The debate over China's trade status differed from fast track from the very beginning.

For starters, no NTR supporter, of either party, disputed the content of the legislation, congressional sources point out.

"In the case of fast track, you had a bitter debate over what goes into the legislation," said one veteran of congressional trade battles.

Through the summer of 1997, Republican and Democratic supporters of fast track debated whether the legislation should include union-backed rules on labor and environmental standards in trade deals.

The Republicans' "wedge issue" strategy was to minimize the labor and environmental provisions anathema to them, and force Democrats to choose between their union allies and business, which supported fast track.

This year, despite labor's opposition on China, Republicans are demanding that Democrats produce enough votes to pull their own weight in the House.

"You don't want to put Republicans on the line if you don't have to," said Rep. Jennifer Dunn, Washington Republican.

But behind the public demands for 100 House Democrats, Republicans say privately that 70 would be enough to put NTR over the top.

For its part, the White House has mounted a substantial enough effort on the China trade issues, and has allayed Republican suspicions that Mr. Clinton was trying to goad Republicans into carrying the ball on an unpopular issue, congressional sources said.

"We had doubts about whether the White House was going to get behind" the China vote because of its past reticence on fast track, said Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican.

In return, the White House has overlooked efforts by some Republicans to "game us on the vote count," a White House official said.

"Given that it is an election year, we have tried to keep the temperature low," the official said.

The single-minded determination of business groups to see the NTR bill through also has been a boost.

In 1997, as the White House sought fast-track authority, industry signaled, subtly but unmistakably, that trade legislation, though important, was not the No. 1 legislative issue.

This time, industry's focus has helped take the partisan edges off of the China debate, a role business declined to play in 1997.

At a hearing earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, bluntly warned the Clinton administration that he would not schedule a vote on the NTR legislation unless the White House went all out, implying that Mr. Clinton was not working the issue hard enough.

After a meeting with the president, and a quiet word from business lobbyists, say those close to the issue, Mr. Lott praised the White House's determination to get the legislation passed.

Still, there is plenty of time for the China NTR debate to turn bitterly partisan, the pro-NTR forces warn.

The acid test of cooperation among Republican and Democratic supporters will be whether Republican leadership resists holding a vote until closer to August when both parties hold nominating conventions.

At that time, House Democrats who support permanent NTR for China would have to step into the political spotlight on a hopelessly divisive issue, according to Mr. Dooley.

"Having the vote early makes a lot of difference on the Democratic side," he said.

"It has to be as soon as possible," Mr. Kolbe agreed.

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